Courtesy of Carson White

“Pancasila,” Arnold Setiadi ’22’s senior thesis for the theater and performance studies major, will premiere on stage this week. The play explores themes of idealism versus what is realistic, the experiences of Asian Americans across the diaspora and interconnectedness. 

The play follows the lives of an aspiring young actor Jacob, an international student from South Asia Camille and a young wannabe detective named Christian. The story tracks their complicated relationships with parents, friends, partners and their own identities and heritages.

The word “Pancasila” refers to the philosophical theory of Indonesia, and is connected to the Wuxing Chinese philosophy. 

“For me as a Chinese-Indonesian American, and a person who lived in Indonesia for a few years, one of the symbols of Indonesia is ‘Pancasila,’ which is actually the philosophical theory of Indonesia,” Setiadi said. “In Indonesia, we have this emblem called a Garuda Pancasila. On that emblem, there is this thing called ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,’ and what it means is ‘unity through diversity.’ Even though we have our differences throughout the Asian diaspora, regardless of socioeconomic status or background, we are still united through these common principles, and that’s where the initial title came from.”

When Catherine Alam-Nist ’24, the play’s director, made the connection that Pancasila in Sanskrit meant “five principles,” the two connected it to the Chinese philosophical theory called Wuxing — which is also based on five guiding tenets. 

“In my research on how we can include more elements of Asian/Asian-American culture in the visual world of the show, I was reading about the Wuxing five element theory — a Taoist schema that, through the five elements and the different qualities connected to them, lays out different energies that mapped onto five of the core characters [in the play],” Alam-Nist said.

Setiadi said that five colors “correspond to different emotions and states of mind,” and that the characters “connect with different colors.”

Christian, who is played by Setiadi, wears red makeup and red clothing. This aligns with the color theory of red, which identifies red as a color that represents a person who wants to expand into new territory and explore new relationships. Harold was associated with the color black, Daisy with white, Camille with yellow and Jacob with blue. Red, black, white, yellow and blue correspond to the five elements in Wuxing theory — fire, water, metal, earth and wood.

During Setiadi’s first semester at Yale, he took the class “Composing and Performing the One Person Play” with his current thesis advisor, professor Hal Brooks. The course inspired him to write a play in which he could also perform. Towards the end of his first year, he began to write a piece inspired by his life that included Asian American representation, humor and a meaningful story behind it. The summer after his first year, through the Yale International Summer Award, he studied acting and theater abroad in England. Setiadi met playwrights to learn about British theater techniques. Some of the entrance and exit cues in “Pancasila”, for example, were inspired by the shows he watched in England, where comedy is often based on farce and quick, rapid movements. 

The next summer, he participated in the Middlebury Chinese Language program online through the Light Fellowship. Setiadi learned about Chinese cultural norms and language and diction, which inspired the Chinese elements of his play. His junior year, he took the class “Playwriting” with Professor Deborah Margolin, in which he completely revised “Pancasila”.

“That is one of the most momentous moments,” Setiadi said. “From my first year, from going to England, from going to China, from submitting earlier drafts for programs — through this class, I was able to begin from square one with all of these ideas.”

Setiadi revised his script to include intertwining storylines involving main characters and side characters.

“Jacob’s story is an important one of him failing, facing microaggressions and the reality of the [acting] industry, but there are also other people from the Asian diaspora who we are trying to include, and see how they intertwine,” Setiadi said.

Setiadi focused on the interconnectedness of the diaspora, and how the differences and commonalities that exist can be embraced, accepted and understood by one another. 

According to Peter Li ’24, who plays Harold, the characters took shape through a combination of Arnold’s script and a collection of stories from everyone in the cast.

“Harold in many ways is just my dad,” Li said. “When we were workshopping the characters, we were able to bring parts of our own stories to the script. The whole story about Harold having to clean Daisy’s room when they first met, that was actually something that happened when my parents started dating.”

Setiadi said that at its core, the play is “a father-son play” about Jacob and Harold.

“Essentially, they have a strong miscommunication,” Setiadi said. “At the very beginning they are separate because of that struggle [regarding] communication and sacrifice. This is a narrative that a lot of immigrants and people who come from Asian American families can relate to.”

By the end, Jacob realizes that he will still be on his own path, but he will acknowledge and accept his cultural ties, and be grateful for all the sacrifices his father made for him. Harold similarly realizes that he and his son are both dreamers. 

“Jacob has to figure out whether the thoughts he is thinking are actually his thoughts, or just thoughts that his parents forced and instilled upon him,” Setiadi said. “Everyone in college can relate to that. [College] is a critical point where you can reframe your mindset and readjust how you think.”

Setiadi connected the theme of idealism versus what is realistic to his own background as an Asian American. Coming from a first-generation low-income background, with parents who were both immigrants from Indonesia, Setiadi experienced a stigma surrounding the pursuit of a career in the performing arts due to the fact that, on a practical level, he wanted to support his family. Growing up, he felt an inner turmoil in knowing that, despite his love for acting, it was not perceived as practical for his family. 

In “Pancasila,” Setiadi wanted to include an important message about family, love and hope in the Asian American diaspora alongside pursuing one’s dreams while also acknowledging family ties, he said. He wanted the audience to laugh and feel engaged and entertained so that they may better remember the message. 

“We are at that point where everyone has to stand up for themselves and stand up for their communities because if you’re not going to do it, no one is going to do it,” Setiadi said. “In the words of Deb Margolin, my theater professor, ‘Do your theater of desire.’ If you have a story worth telling, go ahead and tell it.”

According to Bradley Nowacek ‘23, one of the junior producers of the show, since “Pancasila” is a senior thesis, the actors were allowed to be unmasked and the show could extend beyond 90 minutes.

However, when the actors are unmasked, all production team members must stay 12 feet away from them. This led the production team to creative solutions, such as the makeup designer applying the actors’ makeup in the parking lot. Due to the 75 percent limit on capacity, the play can only accommodate 53 live audience members per performance.

Nowacek added that due to the play’s blend of humor with more serious themes, it benefits from an in-person performance, allowing for audience feedback.

“It is supposed to be a funny show,” Nowacek said. “There are serious levels to it, but we put in the ‘fire speech’ for this show as a reminder that you can laugh. We have not heard each other laugh in 20 months. I did a virtual production where I acted, and was told that I was funny, but I have no evidence for that because I couldn’t hear laughter. I really hope people get back to the joy of laughing at things in a room with other people.”

Pancasila” is the third TAPS thesis of the school year. Tickets can be reserved on the show’s Yale College Arts web page for upcoming performances on Nov. 10, 12 and 13.

KAYLA YUP